Blagging as academic research

A white paper on GDPR subject access rights, presented at the Blackhat USA 2019 conference, got a lot of UK media coverage recently. Less discussion was had, however, about whether the research raised questions about the ethics and legality of “blagging”.

The paper, by Oxford University DPhil researcher James Pavur and Casey Knerr, talked of “Using Privacy Laws to Steal Identities” and describes Pavur’s attempts to acquire another person’s (Knerr’s) data, by purporting to be that person and pretending to exercise their access rights under Article 15 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It should be emphasised that Knerr was fully acquiescent in the exercise.

Pavur and Knerr’s paper has a section entitled “Ethical and legal concerns” but what it notably fails to address is the fact that deliberately obtaining personal data without the consent of the controller is potentially a criminal offence under UK law.

Since 1998 it has been an offence to deliberately obtain personal data by deception, with defences available where the obtaining was, for instance, justified as being in the public interest. The Data Protection Act 2018 introduces, at section 170, a new defence where the obtaining is for academic purposes, with a view to publication and where the person doing the obtaining reasonably believes that it was justified in the public interest. Previously, this defence was only available where the obtaining was for the “special purposes” of journalism, literature or art.

It would certainly appear that Pavur obtained some of the data without the consent of the controller (the controller cannot properly be said to have consented to its disclosure if it was effected by deception – indeed, such is the very nature of “blagging”), but it also appears that the obtaining was done for academic purposes and with a view to publication and (it is likely) in the reasonable belief that the obtaining was justified in the public interest.

However, one would expect that prior to conducting the research, some analysis of the legal framework would have revealed the risk of an offence being committed, and that, if this analysis had been undertaken, it would have made its way into the paper. Its absence makes the publicity given to the paper by Simon McDougall, of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), rather surprising (McDougall initially mistakenly thought the paper was by the BBC’s Leo Kelion). Because although Pavur (and Knell) could almost certainly fall back on the “academic purposes” defence to the section 170 offence, a fear I have is that others might follow their example, and not have the same defence. Another fear is that an exercise like this (which highlights risks and issues with which controllers have wrestled for years, as Tim Turner points out in his excellent blogpost on the subject) might have the effect of controllers becoming even more keen to demand excessive identification credentials for requesters, without considering – as they must – the proportionality of doing so.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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